Gormley: Canada, stop jailing innocent migrants. Just stop. It’s not hard.
A country that doesn’t expend large amounts of energy in the pursuit of an admirable good might be forgiven. Far less excusable is a country’s failure to simply stop doing something pernicious.
The Canadian government may not resettle another 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2017, or the year after that, or the year after that. It might disappoint many Canadians, but even if the difficulty of an important undertaking isn’t sufficient reason to forego it, difficulty is at least a reason. Canada could easily, however, stop habitually detaining immigrants and refugees, including children. There is no reason not to quit.
Every year, Canada throws a large town’s worth of migrants in maximum- and medium-security prisons and in prison-like “holding centres.” It held 7,300 people in 2013 and 8,500 in 2014, on average for a few weeks. It can jail a child. It can jail her for as long as it likes. It decrees that under certain circumstances, it must jail her. And, in a fun twist on an old standard, it need not recognize her as “innocent until proven guilty” — she is charged with no crime, after all — but can force her to prove that she deserves to be released from her cell.
It should stop doing that. Just stop it. Knock it off. It’s so easy.
Other countries do it — which is to say, they don’t do it — all the time. The Global Detention Project has called Canada an outlier on detention for immigrants and refugees among industrialized democracies. Most countries that Canada might want to be compared to, it notes, somehow manage not to routinely jail migrants or create mandatory detention laws.
Given the Liberal government’s stated commitment to restore Canada’s global reputation on human rights, reforming detention ought to be an priority. If embarrassment doesn’t inspire the government to quit imprisoning migrants, I suppose one could appeal to its sense of decency. Several studies and investigations demonstrate that detention traumatizes people who have been traumatized quite enough already by terrorists, sociopathic despots and destitution.
But governments know perfectly well that being in jail must be rather difficult for someone who has committed no crime and hasn’t even been charged with a crime, just as a smoker already understands that cigarettes will make him cough. The government does not require the written equivalent of a photograph of a blackened lung.
The good news is that it’s not a tough habit to kick. Canada gets no rush out of routinely imprisoning migrants. It could release many migrants and it wouldn’t have any headaches, nausea or abdominal discomfort. It may experience some irritability, mind, but only if it really enjoys detaining people and wishes it could go on doing that.
Canadian industry doesn’t depend upon detaining migrants routinely and indefinitely. Nor does Canada’s reputation. It offers no discernible economic or social benefits, but in 2011-2012 migrant detention did cost $50 million. And even if we were to imagine that it might, under highly exceptional circumstances, offer marginal security protections, those can’t possibly trump a self-respecting liberal democracy’s commitment to every individual’s right to due process.
Many Canadians don’t even realize that their country makes a regular habit of something so uncivilized as locking innocent civilians up in maximum-security prisons. Quit doing it, and you won’t miss it. But if quitting civil liberties violations cold turkey remains too daunting a prospect, as a tentative and wholly insufficient start Canada could give up detaining migrant children.
Refrain from putting teens in solitary confinement. Resist the urge to force infants to grow up behind bars. Perhaps even muster the self-control to let their parents go free.
And if we just can’t help ourselves from detaining an adult who has committed no crime, we might detain her in a place that won’t make her feel like a criminal.
Surely Canada has the strength to cut back on human rights abuses. Quit imprisoning the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable. It can do it. Just stop doing it.